Jerry Lewis (born March 16, 1926) is an American comedian, award-winning actor, producer, writer and director, best-known for his slapstick humor and charity fund-raising telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Lewis has won several awards for lifetime achievements from The American Comedy Awards, The Golden Camera, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and The Venice Film Festival, and he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2005, he received the Governors Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Board of Governors, which is the highest Emmy Award presented. Many of Hollywood's filmmaking advances were due to Jerry's clout at the box office, such as the video assist system used widely today.
Lewis was originally paired up in 1946 with Dean Martin, forming the comedy team of Martin and Lewis. In addition to the team's popular nightclub work, they starred in a successful series of comedy films for Paramount Pictures. The act broke up ten years later.
Lewis started performing at the age of five, and by the age of fifteen had developed his Record Act, in which he mimed lyrics of operatic and popular songs to a phonograph.
However, as Martin's roles in their films became less important, the partnership became strained. Martin's diminished participation became an embarrassment in 1954, when Look magazine used a publicity photo of the team for the magazine cover, but cropped Martin out of the photo. The partnership finally ended in 1956.
Attesting to the team's popularity, DC Comics published the best-selling The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comic books from 1952 to 1957. The series continued a year after the team broke up as DC Comics then featured Jerry solo, until 1971, in The Adventures of Jerry Lewis comic books. In this latter series, Jerry was sometimes featured with Superman, Batman, and various other DC Comics' heroes and villains.
Both Martin and Lewis went on to successful solo careers, but for years neither would comment on the split, nor consider a reunion. The next time they were seen together in public was a surprise appearance by Martin on Lewis's muscular dystrophy telethon in 1976, arranged by Frank Sinatra. As well, in Lewis's 2005 book Dean and Me (A Love Story), Lewis wrote of his kinship with Martin, who had died in 1995. Although the pair eventually reconciled in the late 1980s after the death of Martin's son, Dean Paul Martin, the two men never held another public reunion.
After the split, Lewis remained at Paramount and became a major comedy star with his debut film The Delicate Delinquent in 1957. Teaming with director Frank Tashlin, whose background as a Looney Tunes director suited Lewis's brand of humor, he starred in five more films, and even appeared uncredited as Itchy McRabbitt in Li'l Abner (1959).
Lewis tried his hand at singing in the 1950s, having a chart hit with the song "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" (a song originated by Al Jolson and popularized by Judy Garland) as well as the song, "It All Depends On You" in 1958. He eventually released his own album titled, Jerry Lewis Just Sings.
By the end of his contract with producer Hal Wallis, Lewis had several productions of his own under his belt. His first three efforts, The Delicate Delinquent, Rock-a-Bye Baby and The Geisha Boy, were all efforts to move away from Wallis, who Lewis felt was hindering his comedy. In 1960, Lewis finished his contract with Wallis with Visit To A Small Planet, and wrapped up work on his own production, Cinderfella.
But with Lewis shelving Cinderfella for a Christmas release, Paramount needed a quickie feature film to fill its summer release schedule, and held Lewis to his contract to produce one. Lewis came up with The Bellboy. Using the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami as his setting, on a small budget, a very tight shooting schedule, and no script, Lewis shot the film by day and performed at the hotel in the evenings. Bill Richmond collaborated with him on the many sight gags. During production, Lewis developed the technique of using video cameras and multiple closed circuit monitors, allowing him to view scenes while he was filming them, which allowed him to review his performance instantly. Later, he incorporated videotape, and as more portable and affordable equipment became available, this technique would become an industry standard known as video assist.
Lewis followed The Bellboy by directing several more films which he co-wrote with Richmond, including The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Patsy and the well-known comedy hit, The Nutty Professor, which was later remade in the 1990s followed by its sequel in 2000 starring Eddie Murphy. Lewis handed reins occasionally to his favorite director, Frank Tashlin, who directed several of his productions, including It's Only Money and Who's Minding the Store?.
By 1966, Lewis, now 40, was no longer an angular juvenile and his routines seemed more labored. His box office appeal waned, to the point where Paramount Pictures' new executives felt no further need for the Lewis comedies. Undaunted, Lewis packed up and went to Columbia Pictures, where he made several more comedies.
Lewis taught a film directing class at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for a number of years, mentoring such students as George Lucas. In 1968, he screened Steven Spielberg's early film, Amblin' and told his students, "That's what filmmaking is all about.
Lewis starred in and directed the unreleased The Day The Clown Cried in 1972. The film was a drama set in a Nazi concentration camp. Lewis rarely discusses the experience, but did once explain why the film has not been released by suggesting litigation over post-production financial difficulties. However, he recently admitted during his book tour for Dean and Me that a major factor for the film's burial is that he is not proud of the effort.
Lewis returned to the screen in 1981 with Hardly Working, a film he both directed and starred in. Despite being panned by the critics, the film did eventually earn $50 million. He followed this up with a critically-acclaimed performance in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film The King of Comedy, in which Lewis plays a late-night TV host plagued by obsessive fans (played by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard). The role had been based on and originally offered to Johnny Carson. Lewis continued doing work in small films in the 1990s, most notably his supporting roles in Arizona Dream and Funny Bones. He appeared on television on one episode of Mad About You's first season in 1992, playing an eccentric billionaire. He is scheduled to star in The Nutty Professor 2: Facing the Fear, his first animated film.
Lewis and his popular movie characters were animated in the cartoon series, Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down. A production of Filmation in association with ABC and Lewis, the show ran from 1970 to 1972 lasting two seasons. The cartoon starred David Lander (later of Laverne and Shirley fame) as the voice of the animated Jerry character.
The actor was portrayed by Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) in the 2002 made-for-TV movie Martin and Lewis.
Lewis has long remained popular in Europe: he was consistently praised by some French critics in the influential Cahiers du Cinéma for his absurd comedy, in part because he had gained respect as an auteur who had total control over all aspects of his films, comparable to Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. In March 2006, the French Minister of Culture awarded Lewis the Légion d'honneur, calling him the "French people's favorite clown". Liking Lewis has long been a common stereotype about the French in the minds of many Americans, Australians, Canadians, and Brits, and is often the object of jokes in Anglosphere pop culture.
The telethons are typically star-studded: among Lewis's co-hosts through the years were Ed McMahon and Casey Kasem. A frequent performer in the 1970s and 1980s was Frank Sinatra, who surprised Lewis by reuniting him with Dean Martin on the telethon in 1976.
On his 40th Labor Day telethon in 2005, Lewis added Salvation Army fundraising (for Hurricane Katrina) to his usual MDA fundraising, though he also encouraged viewers to give to the American Red Cross. He has also hosted the 1987 and 1991 editions of the French Muscular Dystrophy Téléthon, where he is known for his work against this disease.
On August 31, 2008, Jerry Lewis opened his 43rd MDA telethon while also acknowledging the incoming threat to the Gulf Coast posed by Hurricane Gustav (asking for America's thoughts and prayers). The Telethon's public pledges raised over $65 million dollars alone, not counting the donations from corporate sponsors and national organizations.
Honorary Ambassador of Peace for the Harvey Ball Foundation along with Jackie Chan, Brooke Shields, A. V. T. Shankardass, Prince Albert of Monaco, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Phil Collins, Jimmy Buffett, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Darrell Waltrip, Heather Mills, Yoko Ono, Patch Adams, Sergei Khrushchev and Winnie Mandela.
Jerry received the Boston University School of Law's prestigious Neal Pike Prize for Service to the Handicapped in November:, 1984. The award, which was presented by Boston University President John B. Silber, "recognizes individuals who have made special contributions that have improved the lives of people with disabilities." In 1984 Jerry was inducted into the French Legion of Honor by presidential decree. Legion membership honors individuals whose accomplishment demonstrate extraordinary public service. Several months before Jerry was made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters he was extolled by French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, for his "human qualities and generosity. You are a child's friend and a model for adults."
In February of 2000, Jerry Lewis stunned an audience gathered to honor his work at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival by saying he doesn't like female comics. Lewis said, "I don't like any female comedians. A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me, but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world."
During the 2007 Labor Day Telethon, Lewis almost let slip the offensive slur "faggot" while live on air. While talking to a cameraman, he joked: "Oh, your family has come to see you. You remember Bart, your oldest son, Jesse, the illiterate fag--no...", at which point he aborted the joke and turned away from the camera. He later apologized.
Lewis has battled prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and has had two heart attacks. Medical treatment for the fibrosis using prednisone in the early 2000s caused the comedian to experience weight gain and bloating that noticeably changed his appearance and rendered him unable to perform, in September 2001, at what would have been a return to the London Palladium for the star, a charity event produced by comedian Steven Alan Green. (Green's take on the event was turned into a one-person show, I Eat People Like You For Breakfast, which Green performed at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival.) Lewis some months thereafter began an arduous, months-long rehab, which weaned him off the prednisone steroids that had so altered his appearance and enabled him to get back to work.
Lewis suffered a serious heart attack in the 1980s, and second minor heart attack on June 11, 2006 at the end of a cross-country commercial airline flight en route home from New York City. It was later found that he had pneumonia. Lewis had two stints inserted into an artery in his heart that was 90% blocked, and it restored full blood flow to his heart. This has allowed him to continue his rebound from the lung issues he suffered from 2001 to 2005 and his health has improved. While it meant canceling several major events for Lewis, he recuperated in a matter of weeks.
In 1999, his Australian tour was cut short when he had to be hospitalized in Darwin with viral meningitis. He was ill for more than five months. It was reported in the Australian press that he had failed to pay his medical bills, however Lewis maintained that this was the fault of his health insurer. The resulting negative publicity caused him to sue his insurer for US$100 million.
He has been married twice:
Jerry Lewis is the father of 1960s pop musician Gary Lewis, who had a string of hits with his group Gary Lewis and the Playboys. He has a total of six sons, one daughter out of wedlock, and one adopted daughter.
Lewis currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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